The one where Rachel rattles the teacups

It’s Rachel with a “sh”, not Rachel with a “ch”. Her full name was Elisa-Rachel Félix, but she was known to everyone by her professional stage name, Mademoiselle Rachel, or simply Rachel.

She was the biggest international theatre star of the mid-nineteenth century. Birthday, smurfday, but today is as good a day as any to be reminded of Rachel (21st February, 1821 – 3rd January, 1858), the Swiss-born Jewish actress whose passionate reinterpretations of French classical drama shook European audiences out of mannered Romanticism into the next cultural revolution of naturalism.

MlleRachelbyWilliamEtty

Portrait of Mlle Rachel, 1841-45, oil on millboard, by William Etty. York Art Gallery.
Image source: Wikipedia.
William Etty, in his usual way, found a melting feminine eroticism in the young Rachel’s huge eyes, curving lips, and glossy black ringlets, but the prettiness does not diminish her authority. In dark and ochre colours and rapid brushstrokes he evoked her intense, almost liquid mutability of expression, with those eyes like dark pools for anyone who dares look too deeply to drown in.

She was a social rebel, too, raised out of childhood poverty on the streets to commercial success and wealth by her own talent, and growing up determined to be owned by no-one but herself. She was contemptuous of bourgeois sexual morality and the patriarchal institution of marriage. Among her many lovers were a Bourbon prince and three members of the Bonaparte family, including Emperor Napoleon III, and was faithful to none of them.

Queen Victoria, a passionate woman herself, was a great fan of Rachel, but stopped receiving her after she was told about the actress’s prolific and democratic love life. For Rachel, personal freedom was worth a curtsey.

Scandal was good for business. The editor of The Milwaukee Journal in 1945 expected his readership to be as titillated by details of Rachel’s “wild love affairs” with “Princes, Paupers in parade of Sweethearts” as audiences had been during her American tour in 1855.

Rachel represented, and was, everything that fascinated and frightened Victorian society about female independence, creativity and sexuality – and Jewishness, a crucial part of her identity, for herself and many people in her audiences. She was the dark, exotic outsider of genius, who might be cast out of society any moment by bigots and idiots. 

She is one of the actresses who changed perceptions of feminine and racial equality.

Like Sarah Siddons, the tragic actress who had embodied Neoclassical and Romantic ideals in Britain a generation earlier, Mademoiselle Rachel combined steely control over her purist technique with such a commanding delivery of fathomless, sometimes murderous, passions that it was described by some contemporaries as “masculine”.

This was not synonymous with being butch: “masculine” was the go-to word for any woman whose expression of emotions or ideas was louder than the rattle of teacups. It was used not only of tragic actresses in full flood, or female writers demanding equal rights, but of the boisterous behaviour of the heir to the throne, Princess Charlotte, the might-have-been queen instead of Victoria, who broke the nation’s heart by dying in childbirth in 1817.

The word Charlotte Brontë used for Rachel’s power of conveying emotion was “genuine”. 

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Don’t be an actor, my son, not even a comical one

AN ACTOR’S TRAGEDY

“Though the world is so full of a number things,
I know we should all be as happy as….”
from ‘Make ’em Laugh’ sung by Donald O’Connor, Singin’ in the Rain, 1952, music by Brown, lyrics by Freed, indebted to Cole Porter’s ‘Be a Clown’, sung by Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, in The Pirate, 1948

One of the saddest and most repeated histories in the world is of the child who knows they are not as great as the parent they spend their life trying to emulate.

HenrySiddonsbyStump

Hero with a fatal flaw: the tragically bad actor Henry Siddons (1774 – 1815), eldest son of the great tragic actress, Sarah Siddons, by Samuel John Stump, watercolour portrait miniature, 1808. “He is a fine, honorable, but alas! melancholy character. He is not well indeed…”* His anxiety and lack of self-confidence are apparent, even painted on a piece of card 79mm x 64mm. (NPG) Image source: Wikipedia

They are the collateral damage of celebrity, or genius, or romance, compelled to follow the same vocation as their mother or father, deaf to other callings, dazzled by star dust, enthused with idealism, often determined to work hard, unable to shine, unable to be happy.

The falling-off is steepest in public or artistic careers, and is not confined to celebrity families. The freeloading brats of celebrities raised by nepotism in any industry, political, business or entertainment, get all the press, but there are noble failures, who feel much and barely leave a mark.

Fame and talent are not indivisible. Children of unlucky actors are just as likely to be inspired to go into the same profession as children of rich and famous ones. It’s not a career choice, it’s an hereditary gift or curse; they are not sure which until there is no going back. Sometimes they have talent and ability, but not the temperament to withstand the slings and arrows of their vocation.

Of all the members of the Kemble dynasty of Shakespearean tragedians, the most tragic is Sarah Siddons’ eldest son, Henry, because he inherited all her passion for performance and her intellect for analysing character, without her talent and resilience.

All he had ever wanted to be was an actor, and he was entirely unsuited for an actor’s life. He was perfectionist, and acutely, even morbidly, sensitive to rejection and criticism. The family was fully aware that he suffered from excessive anxiety. His mother worried about his “melancholy character.” Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

Part Eight: Out of clay

siddons self-portrait

Self-portrait by Sarah Siddons, plaster bust c 1820 © Victoria and Albert Museum

At first, her mother’s death robbed Cecilia’s life of purpose. Two years later, she found a new mission when she married the phrenologist George Combe. She adopted his theories with evangelical zeal.

When she married, she surrendered all her worldly possessions, everything that her mother had earned by her own talents, to her husband, according to the matrimonial laws which did not give women rights over their property owned prior to marriage until 1882.

Under her mother’s influence, Cecilia had been brought up looking for the source of human character and behaviour in the passions; when she married she moved her enquiry into what she believed was a new science of the mind. Cecilia had lived all her life looking at her mother’s sculpted heads and watching her performances; now she examined the bumps on her husband’s collection of skulls and accompanied him on lecture tours.

There would be more than a pang of disappointment if the only surviving daughter of the Tragic Muse had given herself away to a pseudo-scientific quack. Not all of phrenology was rubbish: some of its elements survive in modern neuroscience which accepts that different mental abilities are localized in different areas of the brain.

Though his theories were flawed, and he was a shameless self-promoter, Combe was an influential and respected moral philosopher who, financed by his wife’s fortune, did valuable work towards education and prison reform.

A portrait by George Clint (which this blog has been refused permission by a national collection to upload for free) of Cecilia in her late twenties shows the same dark hair and dark eyes, the rich colouring and strong features of her mother, in a softer version; nothing like a subdued Regency ‘Miss’, which her brother George was worried she was doomed to be, she looks intelligent and penetrating; there is warm humour in her expression, a touch of wry amusement in her way of looking at the rest of a world; glowing in a composition of mature russets and golds, nothing superficial or trivial about her, she has a majestic presence of her own. She looks capable of anything she might set her mind to.

There being no use in a blog without pictures, and this blogger being a bad loser, here is an illustration of Romney’s soft-focus treatment of Sarah Siddons at about the same age as Cecilia in the forbidden portrait, with grateful acknowledgments to the ever-gracious V&A.

As Lawrence observed, the deep-set eyes and mobile brows that he knew so well are the same as Siddons’ niece, Fanny Kemble:

Romneyprint - CopyPrint of George Romney’s portrait of Sarah Siddons, 1783. Published in The Connoisseur magazine, ca. early 20th c. © Victoria and Albert Museum

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In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

 “Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

Mrs Siddons by Joshua ReynoldsMrs Siddons as The Tragic Muse, Melpomene, with the figures of Pity and Terror behind her, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, oil on canvas, 1784. Huntington Art Gallery, San Marino, California. Image: Wikipedia

PART SEVEN – “Keep your mind on your art.”
Sarah Siddons’ advice to Macready (1793 – 1873)

After her formal retirement from the stage, Mrs Siddons gave readings from Shakespeare at soirées given in her home, at which her daughter Cecilia acted as a fierce usher, making sure the audience behaved, and reassuring her mother that her powers were intact.

Rustling, coughing, munching, and the bathetic sounds of mobile phones, are distracting enough in a large theatre nowadays, but it is even harder to maintain dramatic illusion in small domestic settings, lit by oil lamps and candles, where refreshments are being served on a table in the interval.

Once, the suave portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, summoned back to the reading sooner than expected, suffered the embarrassment of having to finish eating a slice of toast as inaudibly as possible while the Tragic Muse resumed her platform performance.

Despite such incidents, the readings were not ridiculous; somehow, Mrs Siddons made them sublime. They inaugurated the Victorian popularity of public readings later in the century, most famously the ones by her niece Fanny Kemble (reputedly better at impersonating male characters than her father Charles) and Charles Dickens, part of a dubious dramatic tradition that still thrives in one-woman/man shows, book readings on radio and celebrity promotional tours of today.

Mrs Siddons was able to do more hold her audience; she transported them to a different plane of apprehension. Maria Edgworth, listening to Mrs Siddons as Queen Catherine felt she “had never before fully understood or sufficiently admired Shakespeare, or known the full powers of the human voice and the English language”.

She and her fellow guests were so rapt that they forgot to applaud; their “perfect illusion” was “interrupted by a hint from her daughter or niece, I forget which, that Mrs Siddons would be encouraged by having some demonstration given of our feelings”.

The crash landing of her willing disbelief made Maria Edgworth feel let down by actorly vanity. Audiences wanted Mrs Siddons to be above mortal needs. A great actor has godlike powers on stage to alter audiences’ states of mind, but only a stupid actor thinks they are a god. The gap between the power of acting and the personal vulnerability of the actor is as unbridgeable as the distinction between the reigning sovereign and their private person, completely separate entities, often, in the days of couchee and levee, occupying separate beds.

Mrs Siddons was grand, but she was not conceited. You are only as good as the performance you have just given. You cannot please everyone in the audience. There is always someone unmoved, someone else unpicking you, someone else disappointed that you are fatter and not as good as you were twenty years ago. The emotional effects for which you are famous might flop any day. She had made herself a great actress through patient application and subjective observation, not divine inspiration.
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In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.” SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

NPG D22010; Fanny Kemble by Richard James Lane, after  Sir Thomas Lawrence

 Fanny Kemble (1809 – 1893) transatlantic actress, writer, abolitionist and feminist, in a print by Richard James Lane after drawing by Lawrence, published 1829 -1830. She was the fourth woman in her family to be taken over by, in her words, a”dangerous fascination” for the portrait painter Thomas Lawrence, forty years older than her. He flirted with her, as he did every woman who sat for him. He noticed, while sketching her face, that she had the same eyes as her aunt and his close friend, the dominant tragic actress of the British stage, Sarah Siddons.

PART SIX – The Opposite of People “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!” Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Sarah Siddons and her two eldest daughters can be excused for their infatuation with Thomas Lawrence, because he was notoriously charming, an homme fatale “using sex as a sort of shrimping net”, like the “self-conscious vampire” Myra Arundel in Hay Fever one hundred and thirty years later. Gifted with more than just bedroom eyes, he had that rare knack of making usually sensible men and women feel sorry for him even when he was being mad and bad.

Noone, not even Sally and Maria, could think him of as a villain. He was a catalyst, an accidental destroyer, a personality who would have been invented by Romanticism if he had not existed. He wanted to please, not provoke other people, because he wanted to be loved, without understanding how to love in return.

The cracks in the habitual seducer’s charm showed when he was older – he “had smiled so often and so long, that at last his smile had the appearance of being set in enamel” – but at the time he was playing for the Siddons sisters, the philosopher William Godwin, whose wife Mary Wollstonecraft was a depressive, was so worried about the younger man that he warned him of the dangers of giving in to melancholy.

It was the worm in the bud of sensibility, the morbid strain in Romanticism, that we are heir to, not the suicidal depression, which is par for the course, but the narcissistic failure of compassion, of which empathy is the easy and therefore overrated part. Imagining someone else’s suffering is not the same as feeling it, as any good actor knows. Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

maria

The Gipsy Girl by Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1794
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
A disturbing piece of erotica by Lawrence, for which Maria Siddons, aged fifteen, has been suggested as the model. It is a plausible theory: the girl has the intense, dark-eyed and tousle-haired look of the Siddons family. If it is not Maria, it is representative of a physical type which fascinated Lawrence.

The RA website notes that the genre to which the picture belongs in art history is “fancy”, a sentimental objectification of rural life for rich people, but this wild, half-naked boyish girl with her flushed cheeks, parted lips and fierce gaze – “the frightful sort of beauty” that pierced her mother when she looked at her daughters – is inviting a far more sexually ambivalent response, such as what on earth Lawrence really wanted out of the Siddons sisters, let alone what she is doing with that chicken pressed to her bosom.

PART FIVE – Portrayal and Betrayal

At the beginning of Lawrence’s invasion of their peace, as Sally described it, Mrs Siddons was too blinded by her own affection for him to see the whirlpool into which he was pulling them; perhaps, unconsciously, she was enjoying one of the undercurrents too much, that his feelings were flowing towards her, not her daughters.

The fact so clear to us, that Lawrence was protesting his feelings for Sally too much because he was basically gay, explains but does not excuse his emotional abuse of the two sisters. It was probably just as apparent to Mrs Siddons, who was, after all, in the theatrical profession and not stupid. Eighteenth century and Regency perceptions of sexuality were more fluid than ours, even while the laws governing behaviour were barbarously repressive.

You were not defined in enlightened artistic and aristocratic circles by the sex of whom you slept with, so long as you didn’t make a scandal, or annoy the wrong people, who would use the law vindictively against you, as the “foul thing”, Lord Queensberry, did to Oscar Wilde in 1895. It is no wonder that the pressure of confused feelings and double lives, and often blackmail, drove so many to suicide.

Lawrence, as a self-made professional society portrait painter, dependent on respectable fee-paying clients for his livelihood, could not take the same risks as the aristocratic bisexual Lord Byron a generation later, and flee abroad to countries where the Napoleonic Penal Code had decriminalized homosexuality.

Intelligent women continued to fall in love with Lawrence for the rest of his life, just as they have loved and married sensitive, handsome gay men since. He made women look good and feel good about themselves. Like a lot of narcissistic people, he was probably a very skilled lover: he made love to women the way he would have liked to have been loved if he was a woman.

Like Byron, he used his sex-appeal to further his career. Sittings with Lawrence felt like seductions; sometimes they were seductions.

Marriage was the predominant career option for women without independent means, but the ones who could afford to love and live with each other openly were left relatively free of salacious and legal interference. Queen Charlotte got the Ladies of Llangollen a pension, which would never have been granted a male couple living together, because the concept of lesbianism as a sexual preference did not exist – while women who married conventionally lost their individual rights to their husbands. Defiance meant risking subsistence, reputation, children.

In 1849, Sarah Siddons’ niece, the actress, abolitionist and feminist Fanny Kemble, was one of the first women to challenge the divorce laws of the United States, but she still had to suffer the loss of custody of her daughters to her slave-owning, philandering husband.

NPG D21827; Cecilia Combe (nÈe Siddons); Sarah Siddons (nÈe Kemble); Charles Kemble; Maria Siddons by Richard James Lane, published by  Joseph Dickinson, after  Sir Thomas LawrenceSarah Siddons and members of her family by Richard James Lane, published by Joseph Dickinson, after Sir Thomas Lawrence, lithograph, published May 1830  © National Portrait Gallery, London.
The print has Lawrence’s sketch of Mrs Siddons as Sigismunda at its centre, a figure of brooding intensity with three of her children and one of her younger brothers revolving like satellites around her.
Clockwise: Cecilia Combe (née Siddons); Sarah Siddons (née Kemble); Sally Siddons (identified sometimes as Maria); George John Siddons; Charles Kemble (the actor)

Mrs Siddons had had a soft spot for Lawrence since their first meeting in Bath when he was a pretty nine year old boy earning a living as a portrait painter and she was establishing her reputation as a leading actress.

The adult Lawrence incited a heightened erotic self-consciousness in nearly every woman he met, regardless of age and type; flirting was his primary means of social interaction with both sexes; a friend who knew him very well called him a male coquet.

At the time he ruptured her daughters’ lives, Mrs Siddons was in her early forties, still slim and splendidly handsome, she was the most famous actress in the country, a conscientious, hard-working mother who needed assurance that she could still be loved as a woman, not just a national monument. Continue reading

In this world and the next: a tragedy of gender and celebrity

“Perhaps in the next world women will be more valued than they are in this.”
SARAH SIDDONS (1755 – 1831)

Mrs Siddons, ? as Mrs Haller in 'The Stranger' c.1796-8 by Sir Thomas Lawrence 1769-1830Mrs Siddons as Mrs Haller by Thomas Lawrence, 1796-8 oil on canvas
© Tate Gallery London.

The painting was bequeathed to the Tate in 1868 by Mrs Siddons youngest child, Cecilia.

PART FOUR – In Spite Of

Sarah Siddons had to bear the worst tragedy that can befall a mother, the death of a child, five times. Two of her children died in infancy, an expected mortality rate for the time, but she gave the impression that only pouring grief into acting enabled her to endure the losses of two grown up daughters, one of them aged nineteen, the other twenty-seven, and of her eldest son when he was forty. “I can at least upon the stage give a full vent to the heart which, in spite of my best endeavours, swells with its weight almost to bursting.” They were killed by lung disease, victims of a genetic predisposition, as strong in the Kembles as acting. Continue reading